On the corner of Uhler Avenue and Cuyahoga Street, surrounded by nondescript two-story homes and caged in by a flimsy metal fence, are grids of fresh fruits, vegetables, flowers and other assorted greenery breathing life into the streetscape.
This is one of six community gardens tended by residents and supported by Akron Grows, a city program dedicated to morphing disused city blocks into fertile plots of land.
“This used to be an ugly street corner,” says Brad Christman as he plods through his section of the garden, picking snow peas, kale and other ripe treats with his wife, Deanne. The couple live in Highland Square, but choose to garden on Uhler, taking advantage of the sizable plots (10 feet by 20 feet for a small plot, 20 feet by 20 feet for a large plot) and the abundance of sunlight.
The Akron Grows program started in 2009, setting up five lots, including the Uhler Avenue location, in its first year. It supplies gardeners with vouchers to Donzell’s and Graf Growers, local garden centers. The program also prepares the soil for planting and provides free water in the form of locked spigots or hydrants at each site.
The Uhler site was formed from an open lot where three abandoned houses stood before being demolished. The lot flourishes more each year, with gardeners successfully growing a variety of produce.
“We grow organically and intensively. That’s our style,” says Deanne Christman, who claims that if you can think it up, she and her husband are probably growing it.
The couple grows tomatillos, leeks, celery, parsley, sweet peppers, hot peppers, potatoes, spinach, onions, rhubarb, asparagus, blueberries, garlic, squash, basil, arugula and broccoli. And that’s just some of it. Bees flicker around their borage and milky butterflies hover over the flowers, mostly zinnias. Their sunflowers tower about eight feet high.
“We’re like urban homesteaders,” says Deanne, who admits that she and her husband have rarely been pressed to visit a grocery store in the past few months.
Other gardeners at the site share this enthusiasm for the self-grown lifestyle.
“I am a vegetarian and plant what I like to eat,” says Mary Jane Miller, a gardener at Uhler for about seven years. Miller plants a large assortment of vegetables, including cucumbers, potatoes, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, carrots and beets.
The gardeners also seem to enjoy the “community” aspect of the garden.
“My next-door neighbor has a garden next to mine, and we help water each other’s gardens when we are gone,” says Scott Spears, who has gardened at Uhler for about four or five summers.
“We help each other, email each other, share tips, etc. It’s a great atmosphere,” says Michael Klaus, who grows some “pretty great” blackberries, among other things.
Other gardens supported by Akron Grows are located in Kenmore, Elizabeth Park, Goodyear Heights and southeast Akron between Lover’s Lane and Morgan Avenue. There’s also a second site on Cuyahoga Street just a quarter mile south from the Uhler garden.
Support for opening even more locations around the city is strong from the gardeners at Uhler.
“I would love to see Akron open many more spaces for people to experience growing their own food,” says Miller.
“I have had a very positive experience and have made friendships that will last.”